Taft Twice Turned Down Appointment to the Supreme Court. So TR Picked Holmes Instead!

December 13th, 2013

I recently started reading The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismI’ve read a lot about Roosevelt, but little about Taft before his appointment to the Supreme Court.

In the opening chapter, I found this short summary of Taft’s judicial aspirations, combined with his two refusals to Supreme Court appointments, fascinating.

Taft had not openly sought the presidency. Since his appointment as a superior court judge at the age of twenty-nine, he had aspired to one day become chief justice of the United States. He had moved swiftly up the judicial ladder, becoming U.S. Solicitor General at age thirty-two and a federal circuit judge at thirty-four.

Imagine that. Solicitor General by 32 and 6th Circuit Judge by 34! (In the ceremonial court room at the Potter Stewart Courthouse in Cincinnati, Taft’s actual chair is a fixture in the robing room. It was HUGE!).

When President McKinley asked him to go to the Philippines, it was with the implied promise that he would return to a Supreme Court appointment. When Roosevelt became president, he honored his predecessor’s promise, twice offering Taft a position on the Supreme Court. With great reluctance, Taft had declined both opportunities; in the first instance, he felt he could not leave his work in the Philippines unfinished; in the second, his wife and closest adviser, Nellie, persuaded him not to bury himself on the Court at the very moment when, as secretary of war, he was being touted throughout the country as Roosevelt’s most likely successor. Indeed, were it not for his wife’s White House dreams, Taft would likely never have agreed to a presidential run.

Now, who was appointed those two times? Well, Teddy Roosevelt had three appointments: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1902), William R. Day (1903), and William Henry Moody (1906).  Taft served as Governor-General of the Philippines from 1900-1904 Roosevelt appointed Taft  as Secretary of War in 2004 (in an effort to groom him for the Presidency).  So, it is almost certain that at least the appointments that went to Holmes could have gone to Taft.

So, how would Taft have voted in Lochner?

Taf had always wanted to be the Chief Justice, and found that position more suitable than the Presidency. And remarkably, he said so!

Taft took office in 1909 with commingled exhilaration and trepidation. “I pinch myself every little while to make myself realize that it is all true,” he told a friend. “If I were now presiding in the Supreme Court of the United States as Chief Justice, I should feel entirely at home, but with the troubles of selecting a cabinet and the difficulties in respect to the revision of the tariff, I feel just a bit like a fish out of water.” More than a year later, such misgivings had not subsided. When asked if he liked being president, he replied that he “would rather be Chief Justice,” for the “quieter life” on the Court would prove “more in keeping with my temperament.”